All He Cared About Was Law

Become the King of Janitors? No, thanks

Published in 2008 Northern California Super Lawyers magazine

By John McCloud on June 15, 2008


When other little boys were dreaming about being cowboys, doctors or firefighters, Daniel Johnson Jr. already had his sights set on practicing law.

“I wanted to be a lawyer since I was 7 years old,” he recalls. “I was a little kid watching … I don’t remember if it was Perry Mason or The Defenders … but I said to myself, ‘That’s what I want to do.'”

In fact, he was so intent on becoming an attorney that when it came time to take a standardized aptitude test in the ninth grade, he worried it might end up telling him he wasn’t suited.

“I really sweated that. There’s no way I wanted to learn it wasn’t right for me. That’s all I cared about,” he says.

He need not have worried. Not only did the test come out showing his two best fields were law and sales, he never wavered in his own determination. Today, with more than 30 years of legal experience behind him, the 1973 Yale Law School grad is a litigation practice partner in the San Francisco office of Philadelphia-based Morgan Lewis & Bockius and a member of the firm’s intellectual property practice group committee.

Johnson specializes in high-stakes complex litigation and has represented clients in state and federal courts throughout the United States. Some of his recent high-profile cases include successful representation of O2 Micro Technology in a theft of trade secrets dispute with Monolithic Power Systems; L.G. Philips LCD Co. in a patent infringement suit against Chunghwa Picture Tubes; and Compuware in a five-week jury trial against IBM concerning theft of trade secrets and antitrust, copyright and patent infringement claims. The last resulted in a settlement of more than $400 million.

Despite Johnson’s drive and talent, achievement of his goal was not necessarily a given. As a member of a minority community in Vallejo, Calif., a working-class town whose economy was largely dependent on the presence of Mare Island Naval Base, Johnson came from a decidedly blue-collar background.

His father grew up in Missouri but came to California to work in the shipyards during World War II. There he met his wife, an emigrant from Oklahoma, and settled down to raise two sons and two daughters. When he was passed over for promotion because of his race, rather than accepting the situation, he quit the job and started his own janitorial and plumbing businesses. He eventually became one of the largest federal government contractors in northern California.

“My father’s very smart,” says Charletta Johnson, one of Johnson’s sisters and the founder and director of a Los Angeles charter school called Community Harvest. “He wanted to be a doctor, but those were different times. He only had an eighth-grade education. His parents died when he was still a teenager, and he set off on his own when he was 14 to join the Civilian Conservation Corps, planting trees in the Ozarks. You were supposed to be 16, but he lied about his age.”

Like many self-made men, Daniel Johnson Sr. fully expected that his sons would join him in the business and eventually take it over. He was also aware of the barriers that faced blacks who wanted to work their way up the social ladder. He hoped that by their taking over his business, he could spare his children some of the humiliations he had faced.

But he didn’t count on the strength and persistence of his elder son’s dream. While the second son did join the family business, Johnson Jr. balked.

“No way was I going to be a janitor. All I cared about was law,” he says.

According to Charletta Johnson, ultimately even her father had to admit her brother was destined to head in a different direction.

“I remember my mother telling me his sixth-grade teacher said, ‘You’d better start saving your money because this boy’s going to college.’ The teacher could see his future. He was so smart, so verbal,” she recalls. “We all have an entrepreneurial spirit—my mother’s family, they all have their own businesses too—but Danny, clearly out of all of us, he’s the one who’s just gifted.”

He is also highly competitive, she says, a trait he also got from their father.

“He’s going to work and work and work. I don’t care what it is. We can play a game of Monopoly, and he plays it to win. It’s just like my father, the same spirit, just a different time,” she says.

When it came time for college, Johnson didn’t stray far, heading across San Francisco Bay to UC Berkeley in 1967, where he majored in political science because he had been told it provided the best platform for getting into law school. Unlike many of his fellow students, he refused to let the political ferment of the era distract him from his goal. He graduated with honors and was accepted to Yale.

Yale offered its distractions, but fortunately many of them were beneficial interactions with some of the brightest talent the New Haven school had ever produced, including Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham. He played on the same basketball team with Clarence Thomas and debated with Lani Guinier.

“We were all ambitious, of course, but I don’t think anyone realized the role some of our classmates would play in this country’s history,” he says.

While his Yale contacts likely could have given him entry to top law firms in Manhattan or Washington, D.C., upon graduation he headed straight home.

“I had zero interest in practicing anywhere other than Northern California,” he says. “This was my home. This was where I wanted to be.”

He had no trouble finding work. Wiley Manuel, who would later become the first African American to serve on the California Supreme Court, hired him to work in the state attorney general’s office, where he served as a deputy attorney general for three years.

Louise Renne, who later became San Francisco city attorney, worked across the hall from him, and through Renne’s husband, he landed a job as a general litigator in San Francisco at the firm that eventually became Cooley Godward Kronish.

“At Cooley, I did everything,” says Johnson. “I ended up on some cases involving trade secrets, litigating one of the first microprocessor cases. I also got involved in the home savings crisis of the 1980s, representing the Federal Home Loan Bank Board in its case against Bell Savings. Its CEO stipulated to liability of $260 million and the outside directors agreed to liability of $75 million.”

In the 1990s, Johnson moved to Cooley’s Palo Alto office, where he launched the firm’s general litigation group. At the time, intellectual property cases were moving to the forefront of the legal profession.

“They brought in a couple of patent prosecutors,” he recalls. “I didn’t know what patents were all about, and frankly trying to learn about them gave me a headache. But one day they asked me to take over a patent case. I told them, ‘Don’t look at me. I don’t know anything about this.’ But they insisted, and I took it over and I learned.”

As Johnson readily admits, his youthful concept of the profession was highly distorted.

“As a kid, I had no idea,” he says. “I thought it was all about standing up in court and making wonderful speeches that got your client off. I just thought it was the greatest thing in the world to stand there and make an argument and question somebody. I didn’t realize there was anything more to it than that.”

As he discovered, the real job is more about analysis and writing than speaking.

“It’s analyzing a problem and coming up with a solution based on a set of restricted facts,” he says. “You almost are never in a courtroom. A very small part of time are you doing a presentation to a jury or a judge.”

In some respects, observes his longtime friend Raymond Marshall, a partner in the San Francisco office of Bingham McCutchen, it’s too bad the profession has moved away from the kind of courtroom confrontations Johnson envisioned for himself growing up because he’s so good at it.

“It’s a vanishing art in today’s large-firm process,” he says. “Most cases settle without trial because the volumes of money involved are so large. But Dan’s really an old-school trial lawyer who’s very good on his feet. He’s bright, strategic, tenacious, everything you need to bring a trial to life.”

If Marshall regrets that Johnson doesn’t get more opportunity to be Perry Mason, Johnson seems perfectly content. When asked to list the cases that have meant the most to him, he consistently comes up with ones he describes as having been “fun” to work on. By fun, he elaborates, he means the intellectual challenge of learning a new field.

Regarding the Compuware v. IBM case, for example, he talks about having to study computer architecture and coding to understand and buttress his client’s argument. IBM had written its coding in a proprietary software language, making it difficult to demonstrate to the jury that the programs were nonetheless effectively identical. To prove the case, he and his team did time and motion studies to establish it would take several years to write the software. Yet somehow IBM had done it in 10 months.

“The only way that would have been possible was to steal it,” he says.

“What I love about the law,” Johnson continues, “is that it’s one of the few professions where if you’re in the right place, you can learn so much about so many different things you might never come in contact with. I know why airplanes would crash after certain pilot errors. I know about nonvolatile memories and liquid crystal displays because I’ve litigated those cases. I know about construction issues because I’ve litigated those cases. That’s fun. You’re actually learning new things all the time. It’s like you never leave school.”

He mentions he’s now working on a case dealing with radiology treatment, another subject he’s unfamiliar with, and he brings up his representation of Napster in one of the cases brought against the then-independent company by the recording industry.

“I learned about shared communication over the Internet. It was quite fascinating. There’s always something new,” he says.

For all his enthusiasm about the law, the divorced father of three recognizes the time for retirement is approaching but acknowledges he has no “exit strategy” for moving to the next stage of his life. He owns a small vineyard in Napa and has a few other business interests, but to what extent these will become a greater focus he is unsure.

One thing he is sure of is that he will be more involved with his sister’s school, which he has previously helped with legal and other issues. He boasts that he even came up with the school slogan: What we sow, the community harvests.

As for his children—two girls and a boy—Johnson says they followed his pattern in the sense that they don’t expect to go into their father’s profession. One works for a biotech startup, one wants to write for TV and the third is still figuring out a career direction, but apparently it won’t be law.

And that’s just fine with Johnson.

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